By Morgan Bryce
For nearly 40 years, Lee County Extension Agent Bobby “Smokey” Spears has worked as an educator in the fields of livestock and agriculture.
Growing up on a cattle farm in Fort Payne, Ala., Spears said he knew as a teenager that he wanted to one day become a county agent like his father.
“I wanted to follow in my dad’s (Bob Spears, Sr.) footsteps … he was a county agent, as well as my 4-H agent, and livestock judging coach. He was known as an icon over Alabama … and he was a great communicator,” Spears said. “I could see the impact that he made on people’s lives, and that’s when I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”
After finishing his bachelor’s degree in animal sciences from Western Kentucky University, Spears moved back to Alabama, and began working as an assistant county agent for Crenshaw County in June 1977. Focusing primarily on livestock, he helped create the county’s 4-H livestock judging and swine association programs.
Five years later, Spears received and accepted a job offer for a similar position with the Lee County Extension Office, where he has worked ever since.
Despite his vast knowledge of agriculture, Spears is best known for his success as a 4-H livestock judging coach, churning out more than 30 state-winning teams. He guided his 1990 Lee County 4-H team to a national title.
“We were the highest team in the nation in giving reasons (livestock judging criteria), and that’s unheard of. Usually, you have them sure enough cow states like Oklahoma or Texas that win that, but there’s been a group of kids from Lee County that have gone up there to Louisville (for the national competition) and won it all,” Spears said.
Besides giving children a fun, extracurricular activity and opportunity to connect them with an increasingly less common way of life, Spears said he enjoys seeing them grow and become better prepared with the life skills that livestock judging has to offer.
“The main things it teaches them is responsibility and how to prepare themselves to be better at public speaking. My favorite thing about this job is seeing the young people that I had a little influence on, is seeing them excel in their career, whatever that may be,” Spears said.
For Salem resident and high school senior Grace Gullatt, a nine-year veteran on Spears’s livestock judging teams, his leadership has not only helped her become a better competitor, but a better person. “Smokey has been an example of consistency and dedication to all those on his livestock judging teams … one thing he has taught me is persistence and that hard work will pay off. Although he is very competitive, he stresses the greater value in the skills we are learning and how they will impact our life,” Gullatt said.
Following a brief retirement in 2003, Spears returned in a part-time role, and is still heavily involved with extension work 14 years later. He still works with the pasture and forage and adult livestock programs, and along with help from his wife Autumn, coaches the county’s 4-H livestock judging teams.
“As long as I see the kids continue to wanna learn, I’m willing to teach them,” Spears said. “Ultimately, I’m just here to serve the people in Lee County, and I’ve always enjoyed it. Lee County is a great county to work in.”